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Full text of "A dream of seven decades : San Francisco's Aquatic Park."

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ames P Delgado 






James P. Delgado 

Reprinted from California History 64:4 

The Magazine of the California Historical Society 

Fall 1985 

Not printed at government expense. 

iers, docks, wharves, 
and landings domi- 
nate the waterfront 
of San Francisco. 
Landfill, seawalls, 
and millions of pil- 
ings driven into the bay bottom 
transformed the soft contours of 
Yerba Buena Cove, Mission Bay, 
North Beach, and Hunters Point as 
the city thrived on its rich maritime 
trade. There is, however, one pur- 
poseful exception. Nestled against 
the slopes of Black Point (now Fort 
Mason), and surrounded by the 
bustling commercial activity of 
nearby Fisherman's Wharf is San 
Francisco's Aquatic Park. Conceived 
in the nineteenth century when 
rapid commercial and industrial de- 
velopment of the waterfront drasti- 
cally limited access to the open 
water, Aquatic Park was planned as 
another type of development, a rec- 
reational enclave preserved and set 
apart from the construction of break- 

waters, piers, and wharves. It took 
seven decades for the dream to be 
realized, and then, in the hour of 
triumph during the Great Depres- 
sion, the park became a battle- 
ground for opposing interests con- 
tending over broken promises. De- 
spite the problems which plagued 
its development and construction, 
though, a determined group of en- 
thusiasts continued to use the park, 
and today it is administered by the 
National Park Service as part of the 
Golden Gate National Recreation 

The area ultimately developed as 
an aquatic park was first known as 
Black Point Cove. The cove was 
named for adjacent Black Point, the 
northernmost extension of the San 
Francisco peninsula, which received 
its name from its stand of dark laurel 
which contrasted with the sur- 
rounding dunes of white, wind- 
blown sand. The shallow water 
cove, with narrow beaches and 
steep sand cliffs rising from the 

water's edge, was isolated from the 
small urban core of pre-Gold Rush 
San Francisco, then limited to 
today's financial district. In the 
1850s, the burgeoning population of 
the infant city pushed the town lim- 
its over the sand hills bordering 
Yerba Buena Cove, up onto the 
slopes of Russian Hill, and into the 
North Beach area. By the time the 
city reached the cove and the point, 
both were public property. On 
November 6, 1850, President Millard 
Fillmore designated the land a mili- 
tary reservation vital to the defense 
of San Francisco harbor. 1 The land 
was not immediately occupied by 
the military, however, and others 
quickly moved onto it. 

On the slopes of Black Point sev- 
eral influential citizens, including 
banker Joseph C. Palmer, explorer 
John Charles Fremont, and editor 
James Brooks of the Golden Era, a 
popular literary newspaper, built 
homes in the hope that they could 
establish title to the property 




The three rowing clubs at the foot of Van Ness 
Avenue in 1918. From left to right, the San 
Francisco Rowing Club, Dolphin Rowing 
Club, and South End Rowing Club. The Belt 
Line Railroad trestle had been completed in 


through possession. Meanwhile, 
Black Point Cove was developed 
into the industrial center of the 
young city. The first to build on the 
shores of the cove was entrepreneur 
John Bensley. In 1857Bensley's firm, 
the San Francisco Water Company, 
established San Francisco's first per- 
manent system of water supply by 
constructing a redwood flume to 
carry fresh water from Lobos Creek 
near the Golden Gate along the coast 
and bay shore to a small wood frame 
pump station erected on the beach 
of Black Point Cove. The pumps con- 
veyed the water to reservoirs on 
nearby Russian Hill. 2 At the same 
time, the firm of Heynemann, Pick, 
and Company built a substantial in- 
dustrial complex of wood and brick 

structures next to the pump station 
to house California's first woolen 

More industry came to the cove 
in 1867, when San Francisco busi- 
nessman and politician Thomas 
Henry Selby built a large smelter on 
its eastern shore. The pump station, 
the woolen mill, and the Selby smel- 
ter gave the cove's shoreline a decid- 
edly industrial character. Mean- 
while, the residents of Black Point 
had been dispossessed. Troops oc- 
cupying and fortifying that spot in 
1863 established a military post 
which would ultimately be called 
Fort Mason. The low-lying cove, 
however, was not required for de- 
fensive purposes and the businesses 
along its shore were allowed to stay. 
In 1869, when the military finally 
decided to evict the "squatting" 
industries, substantial opposition 
mounted, and on July 1, 1870, Con- 
gress reduced the size of the military 
reservation, excluding the cove and 
placing the land in the hands of the 

private speculators who occupied it. 

As the century drew to a close, 
however, nearly all of the original 
businesses left the area. In 1885 
Selby closed the smelter, citing a 
need for adequate rail service, deep 
water frontage, and room for expan- 
sion. Within the year it had relocated 
to the eastern shores of San Fran- 
cisco Bay. Four years later, in 1889, 
the woolen mill folded, victim of in- 
tense competition from eastern mills 
and racist anti-Chinese agitators 
who had successfully campaigned 
against the mill's almost exclusive 
use of Chinese workers. By the turn 
of the century only the pump sta- 
tion, rebuilt and enlarged as part of 
the new Spring Valley Water Com- 
pany, and the chocolate manufac- 
turing D. Ghirardelli Company, 
which had purchased the aban- 
doned woolen mill buildings in 
1894, remained. 

The cove was partially filled in 
1858 to accommodate its industrial 
users; later fill along the eastern and 

Black Point Cove in the 
1860s. The sluice vis- 
ible in the foreground 
carried water to the San 
Francisco Water Com- 
pany's pumping sta- 
tion to the right of the 
woolen mill. Smallscale 
filling to even out the 
jagged shoreline is vis- 
ible in front of the mill. 

western edges cut the area of the 
cove in half. The despoliation of the 
cove's sand beach continued in 1906 
after the disastrous earthquake and 
fire when Black Point Cove was des- 
ignated as a dump site for debris 
from the devastated urban core. Fif- 
teen thousand truckloads of broken 
brick, stone, and burnt rubble com- 
pletely obliterated the beach. 3 The 
last major episode of fill at the cove 
was the result of preparations for the 
1915 Panama Pacific International 
Exposition. In 1913 backers of the 
proposed exposition, anxious to 
connect the waterfront Belt Line 
Railroad to the exposition site west 
of Black Point, applied for and re- 
ceived permission to extend the line 
across the cove. An elevated trestle 
was built through the middle of the 
cove and a railroad tunnel was exca- 
vated through Black Point; its tail- 
ings were dumped alongside the 
trestle. As the Belt Line extension 
went into operation in 1914, the 
California Board of Harbor Commis- 
sioners, which had jurisdiction over 
waterfront development, encour- 
aged further filling of the cove. Ac- 
cording to the harbor commission- 

James P. Delgado is Historian 
for the Golden Gate National 
Recreation Area in San Francisco. 

ers, "by this means a large new 
waterfront area of desirable flat land 
has been made more available for 
factory and other commercial uses. " 4 

he destruction of 
Black Point Cove 
was accomplished 
despite a long tra- 
dition of public use 
and plans to pre- 
serve the area for recreation. The 
sheltered sand beach of Black Point 
Cove had attracted swimmers after 
the Gold Rush. While the most fre- 
quent users were no doubt employ- 
ees of the nearby factories, an influx 
of "bathers" anxious to swim in the 
cove started a substantial trade for 
"bathhouses." The first bathhouse 
at Black Point Cove was probably 
built in the early 1860s. Later court 
testimony concerning the character 
of development in the area noted 
that the first bathhouse, as observed 
in 1863, was "a small shanty on the 
beach at the foot of Larkin Street . . . 
at the corner of Larkin and Beach 
streets there were steps leading 
down to the beach. . . . " 5 The bath- 
houses were little more than chang- 
ing areas where swimmers could 
safely leave their clothing and obtain 
a suit and towel, although some of- 
fered piers which extended into the 
deeper water of the cove. The bath- 

houses were very popular; one ac- 
count notes that between 6 and 9 
a.m. "the bay at the cove below 
Black Point was dotted with bobbing 

The San Francisco City Directory 
included its first formal bathhouse 
listing in 1871: Joseph Dunkley's 
"Sea Baths," later known as the 
"Neptune Bath-house." The Nep- 
tune Bath-house was a collection 
of mismatched frame structures 
perched by the water at the base of 
the steep sand cliff and accessible 
only by means of stairs leading 
down from Beach Street. A rickety 
wharf stretched out into the cove; 
from this a line was usually strung 
to hold drying towels and bathing 
suits. Business was good and as the 
popularity of the area increased 
other bathhouses opened. By 1883 
two others were in operation at 
Black Point Cove: the Sheltered 
Cove Baths of Joseph J. Bamber, a 
former teamster, and the Golden 
Gate Sea Baths of Henry Frahm, a 
one-time "fish-curer." While the 
majority of bathhouse users were 
members of the working class, more 
affluent members of San Francisco 
society frequented them as well. The 
most famous was financier, mer- 
chant prince, and philanthropist 
William Chapman Ralston. After the 
setback which ended Ralston's ten- 

Black Point Cove in the 
1870s, showing the 
San Francisco Water 
Company pump station 
on the far right, the 
Pioneer Woolen Mills 
(in a brick building 
constructed in 1863) at 
center right, the Nep- 
tune Baths in the center 
to the left of the factory 
complex, and the Selby 
smelter on the far left. 
The shore in front of the 
woolen mill has been 
extended northward, 
although the cove still 
retains a deep indenta- 
tion which had disap- 
peared by the time 
Aquatic Park was built. 

ure as president of the Bank of 
California, he finished the day with 
a customary trip to the Neptune 
Bath-house. While swimming in the 
cove, he faltered and was pulled 
from the water dead. Though a 
coroner's jury ruled that he had 
over-exerted himself and died of a 
"pulmonary embolism," many felt 
that Ralston had chosen his favorite 
form of recreation to commit 
suicide. 7 

The demise of the popular Ralston 
notwithstanding, the bathhouses 
prospered through the 1880s, ex- 
panding to meet an ever-increasing 
use. On Sunday afternoons the doz- 
ens of small bathhouses or changing 
rooms which had sprung up on the 
sand would be in use, and hundreds 
of bathers would dot the beach with 
their picnic lunches between dips 
into the icy bay waters. Unfortu- 
nately the boom was brief. By the 
1890s all of the bathhouses had 
closed, outclassed by new, enclosed 
salt-water bathhouses such as the 
Lurline, Crystal, and Sutro Baths. By 
1895, wrote one reporter, the 
weather-beaten, abandoned bath- 
houses seemed to possess "an air of 
despondent regret over their deser- 
tion. The future does not seem to 
hold out much promise for the little 
beach at Black Point as a swimming 
resort. Its glories are of the past and 

are fading as the bath-houses are 
crumbling. ... " 8 Yet there were 
hardy swimmers who disdained the 
heated comforts of indoor baths and 
who braved the harsh industrial 
landscape of Black Point Cove. They 
were the rugged members of the 
Dolphin, South End, and Ariel Row- 
ing and Swimming Clubs. 

Established in the 1870s by Ger- 
man-speaking working-class men as 
turnvereins, the three clubs had 
evolved into athletic organizations 
by the advent of the twentieth cen- 
tury. Members of the clubs had un- 
doubtedly swum in Black Point 
Cove prior to the closure of the bath- 
houses. When continued indus- 
trialization and waterfront develop- 
ment south of Market Street forced 
the clubs to relocate during the 
1890s, their members looked to 
Black Point Cove. By 1900 the club- 
houses of the South End Rowing 
Club and the Dolphin Club stood at 
the foot of Van Ness Avenue in the 
cove. These had been barged into 
place, and were soon joined by the 
Ariel Club structure. 9 The strong ties 
to aquatic sport evidenced by each 
club's activities were to be tested 
once again at the new site, however, 
as the industrialization of Black 
Point Cove threatened the last spot 
left on the waterfront for the clubs 
to go. 

The clubs had arrived at a cove 
already altered and slated for further 
change. As the beach was ruined by 
the dumping of earthquake debris 
and by the construction of the Belt 
Line Railroad extension, club mem- 
bers began to lobby actively for the 
preservation of the cove for recre- 
ational purposes. It was not a new 
idea. As early as 1866 landscape ar- 
chitect and urban planner Frederick 
Law Olmsted had proposed a water- 
front park at Black Point Cove. In a 
report to the Board of Supervisors 
Olmsted had outlined a plan for 
"Public Pleasure Grounds" through- 
out the city which envisioned Black 
Point Cove as a "municipal landing 
place and marine parade" for dig- 
nitaries and foreign representatives: 

Here there should be a suitable landing 
quay and a plaza, with a close and thick 
plantation of evergreens on the west side, 
with banks of shrubs and flowers. The 
plaza or parade should be open and large 
enough to be used as a drill ground by 
a battery of artillery or a regiment of 
infantry, with some standing room and 
seats for spectators. It should also con- 
tain an elegant pavilion for the accommo- 
dation of committees of reception and 
their guests and should be decorated with 
flagstaffs, marine trophies, and eventu- 
ally with monuments to naval heroes, 
discoverers and explorers. It should not, 

however, be very large or fitted for ex- 
tended ceremonies, being considered 
rather as the sea-gate of the city rather 
than a place of entertainment for its 
guests. 10 

Olmsted's plan for Black Point Cove 
was never realized, probably be- 
cause of the firmly entrenched in- 
dustries and the then unsettled 
question of military ownership. 

he failure of the 
Olmsted plan did 
not discourage later 
schemes. In 1905, 
noted planner Dan- 
iel Hudson Burn- 
ham proposed a park at Black Point 
Cove. Burnham's plan was more re- 
strained than Olmsted's, seeking 
rather to preserve the cove as open 
space. It was, however, part of a 
larger plan to redesign San Francisco 
along new lines urged by a citizens' 
committee headed by former mayor 
James Duval Phelan. The commit- 
tee, known as the Association for 
the Improvement and Adornment of 
San Francisco, hoped to use urban 
planning as an impetus for political 
change in a city ruled by fighting 
factions of labor and capital and 
presided over by ruthless "bosses." 11 
Indeed, at Black Point Cove working 
class "labor" was clashing with in- 
dustrial capitalism to preserve the 

recreational enclave. The status quo 
remained unchanged, though, since 
commercial opposition prevented 
the Burnham plan from being 

Meanwhile rowing and swim- 
ming club members wishing to save 
Black Point Cove had been working 
quietly behind the scenes. With the 
failure of the Burnham plan, they 
formed the Aquatic Park Improve- 
ment Association to lobby actively. 
In April of 1909 the association pre- 
sented a cost estimate for a proposed 
recreational development to the 
board of supervisors along with a 
request that the proposition be sub- 
mitted to the voters as a bond issue. 12 
The public rejected the concept that 
November; another proposal was re- 
jected in 1912. Yet the 1912 defeat 
marked a turning point, because a 
majority voted for the park, al- 
though the votes fell short of the re- 
quired two-thirds. This cheered the 
Aquatic Park Improvement Associa- 
tion's members, who would con- 
tinue to push for the park under a 
different mantle. 13 Some individual 
members of the South End Rowing 
Club at the same time attempted to 
arrange for a transfer of land. The 
Southern Pacific Railroad had pur- 
chased a large portion of the cove in 
hopes of developing it, only to find 
that the area was too small unless 

extensive filling took place. The row- 
ing club members hoped to convince 
the board of supervisors to offer the 
railroad more desirable, accessible 
land south of Market Street in ex- 
change for Black Point Cove. Nego- 
tiations faltered, however, and by 
1913 the Belt Line Railroad extension 
had filled much of the cove. 

The continued filling of the cove 
angered the membership of the San 
Francisco Recreation League, an or- 
ganization dedicated to establishing 
public enclaves for recreational use. 
Beginning in 1913 the recreation 
league spearheaded the fight for an 
aquatic park, obtaining the support 
of United States Congressman Julius 
Kahn and various members of the 
board of supervisors. Supervisor 
McLaren presented a resolution to 
the board on March 13, 1914, calling 
for the preservation of Black Point 
Cove as the "site of the proposed 
aquatic park." 14 At the same time, 
however, an application for a permit 
to fill the cove entirely filed by the 
harbor commissioners sat before the 
board of supervisors. In a key test 
of the aquatic park proposal, McLar- 
en's resolution was approved and 
the harbor commissioners were de- 
nied a permit. The adopted resolu- 
tion stated that there was nowhere 
else "on the shore line of San Fran- 
cisco suitable for an aquatic park or 

The Dolphin Club's junior crew, 
winners of the Bay Area rowing 
championship on April 16, 1916. 

for swimming, boating or fishing" 
and called for the cessation of de- 
velopment at the site. It did not call 
for the reversal of damage already 

Be it resolved by the Board of Supervisors 
that we invite the cooperation of the citi- 
zens of San Francisco who are interested 
in the moral and physical welfare of the 
citizens of the State of California in the 
creation of a sentiment that will arrest 
this march of commercialism and at- 
tempted threat of public rights. . . , 15 

The McLaren resolution marked the 
turning point in the struggle to 
create an aquatic park. Momentum 
now moved quickly toward fulfilling 
the first goal, setting aside Black 
Point Cove from commercial de- 
velopment and placing it in public 
stewardship. In 1916 the city as- 
sessed lands in Black Point Cove; 
various parcels, some belonging to 
the Southern Pacific Railroad, some 
state tidelands, and others belong- 
ing to various small businesses on 
the cove's shore, were all appraised. 
The largest parcel, nearly one-third 
of the cove, was held by the South- 
ern Pacific, which had little use for 
the limited area of the cove. The pos- 
sibility of exchanging lands south of 
Market Street, which the railroad 
wanted, for the Black Point Cove 
property was revived at this time. 

There was still some opposition, 
though. Public hearings before the 
board of supervisors introduced an 
alternative plan to use the recently 
closed Panama Pacific International 
Exposition's marina as an aquatic 
park. Proponents of this idea argued 
that "we already have an aquatic 
park fronting on the Marina and that 
this would be a duplication." Black 
Point Cove partisans pointed out in 
response that Black Point provided 
a sheltered locale with potential for 
development for swimming and 
rowing and that there was a long 
tradition of aquatic recreation at the 
site. The newly developed yacht 
harbor on the Marina, on the other 
hand, had been recently reclaimed 
from marshlands. 

Opposition to setting aside Black 
Point Cove also came from commer- 
cial interests who noted that an ex- 
tension of Van Ness Avenue to the 
water and its subsequent develop- 
ment as "another Market Street, 
another commercial artery of San 
Francisco" could not happen if the 
cove was made into an aquatic park. 
A park was not suitable, they stated, 
because "that location will be re- 
quired for ferries in the future when 
the people of San Francisco may be 
taken for recreation and pleasure to 
the attractive places in Marin 
County." Edward Scully, a member 

of the South End Rowing Club, 
countered with testimony that the 
recreational use of the cove would 
actually encourage commercial 
growth in the surrounding area as 
large crowds flocked to the park, 
which would "keep San Franciscans 
in this city." 16 

upport of the park 
idea eventually out- 
weighed the oppo- 
sition as a diverse 
array of public 
groups, including 
the Congress of Mothers, North 
Beach Promotion Association, the 
Olympic Club, the League of Im- 
provement Clubs, and the San Fran- 
cisco Association for the Prevention 
of Tuberculosis, all joined to lobby 
on behalf of the aquatic park propos- 
al. In mid-1917 the board of super- 
visors voted to trade undeveloped 
city-owned lands south of Market 
Street to the Southern Pacific Rail- 
road for its one-third of Black Point 
Cove. In November of the same year 
Southern Pacific approved the deal 
and the land transfer took place. The 
city received $392,073 to compensate 
for the fact that the Black Point Cove 
property was "lesser valued." 17 

Eager to acquire the other two- 
thirds of the cove, the board of su- 
pervisors voted in December 1917 to 

Bakewell, Brown, and Bauer's plan for 
Aquatic Park. The pier on the right was 
constructed and is still used for fishing 
and strolling; plans for the one on the left 
were scrapped when the bond issue which 
would have paid for it failed. 

(Far right) The park site in 1925, with the 
Dolphin Rowing Club visible in the back- 

allocate funds for the purchase of 
additional land. Proposals to spend 
the $392,000 from Southern Pacific 
for the development of the aquatic 
park were tabled, however, as the 
supervisors emphasized acquiring 
the land. Between 1918 and 1928 a 
series of piecemeal purchases 
brought the remaining Black Point 
Cove land into the public domain. 

Planning for the proposed park 
began in 1920 when San Francisco 
Civil Engineer John Punnett was di- 
rected to prepare a conceptual basis 
for more detailed plans to be drafted 
by architects and engineers in an 
open competition. 18 More than just 
a conceptual basis, the Punnet plan 
proposed no major restoration of the 
original contours of Black Point 
Cove but was aimed at intensive rec- 
reational development. Subsequent 
plans followed these lines rather 
than the quite different concepts 
which later won the open competi- 
tion. 19 Actual site development also 
began in 1920 with the grading of 
the cove's shoreline between Van 
Ness Avenue and Larkin Street. In 
the next year the Belt Line trestle 
was relocated closer inland, freeing 
much of the cove's remaining open 
water space from encroaching de- 

In 1922 the board of supervisors 
placed the aquatic park site under 

the jurisdiction of the San Francisco 
Board of Park Commissioners, 
which promptly appointed the firm 
of Bakewell, Brown, and Bauer as 
architects for the project and di- 
rected them to prepare a prospectus 
and plans. 20 The Bakewell, Brown, 
and Bauer plan was completed in 
1923 and quickly approved by the 
park commissioners. Reminiscent of 
the Punnett plan, the new design 
called for the extensive recreational 
development of Black Point Cove. 
Curving concrete piers would arc 
out into the bay, enclosing the wa- 
ters of the cove; inside, on broad 
sand beaches and expanses of lawn 
would be "various buildings, bath- 
houses, boat-landings . . . drive- 
ways, approaches, and planting and 
landscaping the entire park area. 
. . . " 21 If completed, the Bakewell, 
Brown, and Bauer plan would have 
cost almost two million dollars and 
would have rendered the cove prac- 
tically unrecognizable. 

A bond issue intended to finance 
the project was presented to the vot- 
ers in November 1928. Advertise- 
ments in favor of the issue noted 
that "People Demand and Deserve 
A Safe Place to SWIM, ROW, FISH 
in the Heart of San Francisco" and 
urged passage to "Make the Bay A 
Safe Place to Play." 22 Hopeful that 
the bond issue would pass, the 

board of supervisors appropriated 
$100,000 to build one of the enclos- 
ing piers envisioned in the Punnett 
and Bakewell, Brown, and Bauer 
plans. 23 The supervisors' optimism 
was misplaced, however. The bond 
issue failed. Nevertheless the appro- 
priation for the enclosing "recre- 
ation pier" had been made, and the 
commitment would be met. Con- 
struction was delayed by the onset 
of the worldwide economic depres- 
sion in 1929, but work began in ear- 
nest in 1931. 

Prior to 1931 work at the site had 
included relocating the three rowing 
and swimming clubhouses from the 
foot of Van Ness Avenue to the foot 
of Polk in 1927 (they would be 
moved again to their present loca- 
tion at the foot of Hyde Street in 
1938). With the clubhouses out of 
the way, Van Ness Avenue was ex- 
tended over landfill bordering the 
western edge of the cove to the very 
tip of Black Point. This paved the 
way for pier construction in 1931. 
Commencing on August 17, a crew 
of laborers cleaned the park site, 
working beside a large sign which 
proclaimed "Site of San Francisco's 
AQUATIC PARK To Be Erected By 
The Park Commissioners For The 
People of San Francisco." Cribbing 
salvaged from other construction 
projects was stockpiled at the foot 

of Van Ness Avenue and a crude 
concrete and rubble seawall was 
built against the exposed dirt bank 
of the road. Workmen for the Healy- 
Tibbetts Construction Company, 
under contract to the city to build 
the pier, began work late in the year 
and by December the first half of the 
reinforced concrete pier was in 
place, sweeping out into the bay and 
then curving in to enclose the indent- 
ed shoreline of the cove. The pier 
remained only half complete until 
1933, though; final costs for the proj- 
ect were more than half again what 
the supervisors had allotted, and ad- 
ditional funds were not available. 

For the remainder of 1931 and 
1932 a limited amount of work kept 
the project alive. While the city 
fathers waited for more money, 
workers graded and stockpiled 
granite cobblestones which had 
been trucked to the park site from 
resurfaced San Francisco streets. 
Borrowed tools and. salvaged mater- 
ials (such as the cobblestones) al- 
lowed what work there was to con- 
tinue. Completion of the park ac- 
cording to the Bakewell, Brown, and 
Bauer plan would require the con- 
struction of another enclosing "rec- 
reation pier" running offshore from 
the foot of Hyde Street as well as 
the erection of various buildings and 
the creation of green lawns and sand 

beaches. The millions of dollars 
needed were clearly beyond the 
fiscal resources of the City of San 
Francisco. Unless support from pri- 
vate, state, or federal government 
sources was obtained, the aquatic 
park project was doomed. 

ark backers took 
heart from the pas- 
sage of the Nation- 
al Recovery Act in 
1933, believing that 
money would now 
be made available by the federal gov- 
ernment. The board of supervisors 
applied for NRA funds for a number 
of civil projects, including the com- 
pletion of the city's aging sewer sys- 
tem and the development of Black 
Point Cove as an aquatic park, "one 
of the most important recreational 
developments in the City and 
County." 24 The board of supervisors 
pledged $1.6 million from any forth- 
coming NRA funds to the aquatic 
park project and placed a proposal 
on the ballot to raise additional 
funds to build 

boat houses for rowing clubs, the creation 
of a bathing beach, park and playground 
areas, a concrete wharf to facilitate auto 
parking, bath-houses, convenience sta- 
tions, service buildings, gymnasiums, 

hand ball courts, shower and locker 
rooms, solariums, and club quarters. 25 

The construction of the aquatic 
park and other NRA sponsored proj- 
ects would create six thousand jobs, 
and the supervisors hoped this pros- 
pect would win enough support 
among the unemployed to assure 
passage of the bond issue. Other 
bond issues passed in November, 
but the aquatic park proposal was 
defeated. The board of supervisors 
still sought to realize the obvious 
benefits of setting aside the last area 
of open bay waterfront for recre- 
ational uses, however. Construction 
limped along at Black Point Cove 
through 1934 and 1935, aided in part 
by State Emergency Relief Adminis- 
tration (SERA) funds and private do- 
nations. Another setback came when 
the National Recovery Act was de- 
clared unconstitutional in 1934. 
Hope revived, however, with the 
creation of the Works Progress Ad- 
ministration (WPA) as part of Presi- 
dent Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal 
the following year. A proposal sub- 
mitted to the WPA in late 1935 finally 
hit the mark. On December 19, 1935 
the Works Progress Administration 
announced that it would build San 
Francisco's Aquatic Park. 

The dream of an aquatic park 
which had been born decades before 
was finally to be carried into reality. 

Aquatic Park under construc- 
tion in March, 1938. The 
shoreline extends into the Bay, 
and the relocated railroad track 
is visible just inland from the 
bathhouse construction. 

(Far right) Aquatic Park on 
Dedication Day, 1939. 

The board of supervisors appointed 
architect John Punnett, who had 
drafted the first plans for the park 
in 1920, to prepare the final site plan. 
San Francisco City Architect William 
A. Mooser III was selected to design 
the structures in the park. Mooser' s 
appointment was practically tradi- 
tional: his father, William A. Mooser 
II, had designed two structures at 
Black Point Cove, the D. Ghirardelli 
and Company factory and the Cali- 
fornia Fruit Canners Association 
warehouse. Mooser's grandfather, 
William A. Mooser, had designed 
the Pioneer Woolen Mill's brick 
buildings in 1863. Hence the designs 
and buildings of three generations 
of Moosers would ultimately stand 
on the shores of Black Point Cove. 
If Mooser's selection as architect was 
traditional, however, the design for 
the aquatic park buildings was not. 
Bold, sweeping lines, curved 
facades of sheer white walls, stain- 
less steel railings, and porthole win- 
dows combined with tiered levels to 
create a nautical motif in the contem- 
porary "streamlined moderne" 

Even as the plans were being 
drafted, WPA crews hired from the 
ranks of San Francisco's jobless 
began work. The first major job was 
the construction of a stepped granite 
cobblestone seawall along the land- 


filled shoreline of Black Point Cove, 
sweeping in a curve that mirrored 
that of the recreation pier at the foot 
of Van Ness Avenue. Foundations 
for six reinforced concrete structures 
were poured; one was a large bath- 
house, three were small restroom/ 
lifeguard station/convenience stands, 
the others were two speaker towers 
to broadcast sports events in the 
cove to the anticipated crowds of 
bathers and spectators. Punnett's 
plans called for other buildings, but 
limited funds dictated that the prior- 
ity for construction was the bath- 
house, which would accommodate 
five thousand bathers. Awaiting fu- 
ture appropriations were a large 
new building to house the South 
End, Dolphin, and Ariel rowing and 
swimming clubs, a bandstand, and 
expansively landscaped grounds. 

When the park was dedicated in 
1939 the results, though limited, 
pleased everyone. According to 
WPA officials: 

The finished park, protected by the great 
curve of the municipal pier . . . fills com- 
pletely the need for a central water play- 
ground. Here one may bathe, swim, 
canoe, or sail . . . Here thousands of 
happy youngsters find protected play- 
ground in the water and on the shore. 
Here thousands of wearied adults may 
sink into warm, embracing sand, content 
to just lie and relax, and revel in the 

beauties spread before them. 26 
The bathhouse was the crowning 
achievement of Aquatic Park, its 
nautical design decorated by Federal 
Arts Program artists Hilaire Hiler, 
Sargent Claude Johnson, Beniamino 
Bufano, Richard Ayer and a bevy of 
assistants. It featured terrazzo floors 
laid to resemble shoal charts, murals 
of "undersea life," and softly shaped 
sculptures of sea creatures. The 
"moderne" motif was matched by 
the modernity of the structure, 
which contained a fully equipped 
hospital, complete with an operat- 
ing room, showers activated by 
photoelectric "eyes," rooms where 
blasts of warm air and heat lamps 
dried swimmers, a full-service res- 
taurant, a large concession stand, 
dressing rooms and lockers for five 
thousand men, women, and chil- 
dren, and exterior stadia which 
could seat over two thousand spec- 
tators. A small room on the top level 
of the building housed an an- 
nouncer's booth, which was linked 
to the speaker stands on the park 
grounds. The public was evidently 
pleased; tens of thousands flocked 
to Aquatic Park on January 22, 1939 
for its dedication. Over $1.5 million 
in public funds had been poured 
into the project, and many San Fran- 
ciscans, particularly those who had 
lobbied for the aquatic park concept, 


, # l,i^JWfe* !| 

were anxious to see what they had 
gotten for their money. 

hey soon learned, 
however, that the 
enthusiasm of Ded- 
ication Day masked 
problems which 
had plagued the 
project. Since the beginning of the 
park's construction, delays in ac- 
quiring approved plans and specifi- 
cations, a lack of supervision, poorly 
defined goals, and costly mistakes 
had hindered progress. A WPA in- 
vestigation later found that 

The project was under the supervision 
of at least six different WPA superinten- 
dents . . . yet few of those [superinten- 
dents] interviewed were able to give a 
concise description of the intended use 
of the building . . .One person remarked 
"It was like Topsy, it just grew" . . . 
Instances were cited showing that com- 
pleted work had to be torn out because 
of changes made . . . It would be difficult 
to determine the exact locations of all of 
the final installations. 27 

The first foundations poured for the 
bathhouse were inundated by the 
next high tide; new foundations 
were poured on two-foot-high pil- 
ings. Deliberate malfeasance had 
also been rampant. Municipal offi- 
cials eager to find a paying use for 

the bathhouse had leased the un- 
finished building to Kenneth and 
Leo Gordon, who operated a food 
concession in the Ferry Building. 
The Gordons were to create Aquatic 
Park Casino complete with bar, 
nightclub, and restaurant. Changes 
to accommodate the casino were 
made at the urging of city officials — 
at WPA expense. In 1937, when city 
officials toured the nearly completed 
building, it was suggested that the 
open area of the third floor, in- 
tended for use as a public lounge, 
should be made into a banquet facil- 
ity. The officials accordingly ordered 
changes made. A completed wall 
was demolished and a small glass 
block pantry installed, adding 
months to the project schedule and 
thousands of dollars to the WPA's 
budget. A slow pace of work, esti- 
mated at three percent progress each 
month, and the presence of the Gor- 
don concession angered WPA offi- 
cials, who finally decided to with- 
draw from the project. At the end 
of 1938 the city had been notified 
that the City and County of San 
Francisco would have to assume the 
burden of completing the three 
smaller bathroom buildings and any 
additional construction. The park 
presented to the public in January 
of 1939 was incomplete. 

Public dissatisfaction soon arose, 

though not over the incomplete state 
of the park or the cost overruns and 
misadministration. The park was a 
success, with thousands flocking to 
the beach to enjoy a swim in the bay 
despite the fact the beaches had not 
yet received sand and were strewn 
with the broken bricks and rubble 
dumped in the cove in 1906. Even 
occasional overflows of polluted 
water from a nearby sewer failed to 
discourage bathers. What dismayed 
many was the near-complete take- 
over of the bathhouse by the Gor- 
dons. High prices discouraged most 
patrons, and public use of a building 
described by the city and the WPA 
as a "Palace for the Public" was 
frowned upon. A WPA investigator 
on one occasion observed a group 
of school boys bringing their lunches 
to the open veranda overlooking the 
cove, "They were ordered to leave 
by the concessioner." Throughout 
the bathhouse the Gordons had 
erected prominent signs stating 
"Private — Keep Out." 28 Additional 
controversy flared in 1940 when it 
was disclosed that the Gordons, 
angered over what they termed the 
city's failure to complete work in the 
building, had refused to pay rent for 
over a year. 29 Litigation and a storm 
of public outrage ensued, and by the 
end of 1940 the Gordons had been 
ousted from the bathhouse and the 


Critics described the bathhouse as "built 
from the outside in." One of the most 
egregious examples of vacillating plans 
was the demolition of the east wall of the 
third floor and the addition of a glass-block 
pantry to accommodate private conces- 
sioners' desire to use the third floor as a 
banquet room rather than the public 
lounge for which it had been originally 


doors padlocked. The beach, en- 
riched with sand brought from exca- 
vations at Union Square to build an 
underground parking garage, re- 
mained open and popular until the 
end of 1941. 

In the aftermath of the Japanese 
attack on Pearl Harbor on December 
7, 1941, a wave of fear swept the 
Pacific Coast. Military forces in 
California, Oregon, and Washington 
were placed on alert and emergency 
defenses were hastily thrown up. 
Most were small anti-aircraft bat- 
teries. Embarrassed city officials 
anxious to unload their "white ele- 
phant" turned over the padlocked 
bathhouse to the Army for use as 
the headquarters for anti-aircraft de- 
fense on the Pacific Coast. In early 
1942 troops occupied the park, living 
in the bathhouse, closing the beach, 
and training in preparation for war. 
Thus the long-awaited Aquatic Park 
dream, fulfilled in 1939, died as the 
former military reservation at Black 
Point Cove reverted to its original 

n 1948 the military 
returned the land 
to the city and 
Aquatic Park once 
again became a 
reality. The dream 
had been largely forgotten, though. 


The surrounding area remained in- 
dustrial, and the bathhouse, closed 
to the public, awaited a purpose. 
That year the board of supervisors 
turned some portions of the building 
over to the newly created San Fran- 
cisco Senior Center. Various 
museum uses for the building had 
also been proposed through the 
years; one plan called for moving in 
exhibits from the 1939 World's Fair 
Golden Gate International Exposi- 
tion held on Treasure Island. The 
most appropriate use, however, was 
found by a young man who first 
came to Aquatic Park as a patron of 
the Gordons' casino. Karl Kortum, 
a Petaluma chicken rancher, had 
early been infected with a love for 
ships and the sea. Kortum envi- 
sioned the bathhouse filled with 
maritime exhibits and a fleet of his- 
toric vessels moored in the cove. The 
idea caught on, and in 1951 the San 
Francisco Maritime Museum was 
opened in the bathhouse. Within a 
few years the State of California 
opened the San Francisco Maritime 
State Historic Park in the cove at the 
foot of Hyde Street. Both the mu- 
seum and the historic ships remain 
in the park today as part of the pop- 
ular National Maritime Museum. 

The open-air qualities which had 
attracted the first bathers to the cove 
in the 1860s continued to bring suc- 

ceeding generations. The number of 
bathers began to decline, however, 
particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, 
although new forms of recreation at- 
tracted others. Dilapidated factories 
and warehouses were renovated to 
become popular shopping and res- 
taurant facilities. Today hundreds 
of thousands visit The Cannery, 
Ghirardelli Square, and the other at- 
tractions along San Francisco's 
Fisherman's Wharf. Aquatic Park is 
now a unit of the National Park Serv- 
ice's Golden Gate National Recre- 
ation Area, which also administers 
the National Maritime Museum. 
Under National Park Service stew- 
ardship the buildings and the faded 
Depression artworks are being re- 
stored. In 1984 Aquatic Park was 
listed on the prestigious National 
Register of Historic Places as a his- 
toric property of national impor- 
tance; future plans call for com- 
pletely restoring the bathhouse to its 
original function. 30 A renaissance of 
the dream is apparent, supported by 
the National Park Service, by the last 
two swimming and rowing clubs, 
the Dolphin and South End clubs, 
and by the crowds who flock to the 
beach on warm days, drawn to the 
park and its promise of individual 
interaction with the all-surrounding 
sea. □ 

by Stephen A. Haller 



It has been suggested that the 
"streamline-moderne" style of architec- 
ture blending geometric functional 
shapes with softer aerodynamic curves 
and lines was a manifestation of hope 
for a better future in the midst of hard 
times. 1 Nowhere was this aesthetic 
better expressed than in the bathhouse 
at Aquatic Park. Although a critic at a 
WPA investigation suggested — prob- 
ably accurately — that the bathhouse 
had been "built from the outside in" 
without much serious study of its 
intended use, 2 it functions very well 
simply as a grand public monument to 
be admired both from the outside and 
inside without necessarily "doing" 
anything. The curvilinear shape of the 
building with its recessed upper stories 
purposefully recreates the bridge of an 
ocean liner. The effect is enhanced by 
tubular steel railings, porthole windows, 
rope set into the wall plaster, funnel-like 
ventilators, and a flagpole in the form 
of a ship's mast. It is appropriate that 
among the displays in the lobby is a 
large model of the 1936 liner Queen Mary. 

But the architecture is only one part 
of the bathhouse's visual impact. The 
WPA-sponsored artwork inside and out 
is an integral part of the whole . As New 
Deal art in California, it is neither the 
first nor the last, but it is among the most 
distinctive because of its expressionist 
nature. In contrast to the vast majority 
of federally sponsored artists in 

Stephen A. Haller is a historian 
and archivist at the Golden Gate 
National Recreation Area in San 

Sub-aqueous life teems on the walls of the 

California, who painted scenes of social 
and working life in a realistic manner, 
the artists who worked on the Aquatic 
Park bathhouse expressed themselves 
in a surrealist, abstract, gently flowing 
style. It is ironic indeed that these 
artworks, so apolitical when compared 
with the controversial murals at San 
Francisco's Coit Tower or Rincon Annex 
Post Office, became an effective political 
vehicle when the artists ran head-on 
into the proposed private use of the 
building as the Aquatic Park Casino, a 
pricey restaurant. Led by sculptor 
Beniamino Bufano, the outraged artists 
forced an investigation into the entire 
project which eventually halted the 
private use of the public building. 

Bufano' s tangible legacy remains in 
the form of two smoothly polished 
statues, a seal and a toad, on either end 
of the veranda. The National Park 
Service would like to bring Bufano's 
Penguin, created for Aquatic Park and 
now standing in Maritime Plaza, back to 
its original place in the park. Bufano's 
two animals face a bright mosaic of 
abstract fish on the veranda wall, it was 
executed by Sargent Claude Johnson, 
one of a handful of black artists on the 
WPA rolls. Johnson also did the flowing 
carvings in green slate over the main 
entrance which depict life and work by 
the water. 

In charge of all the artists at the 
bathhouse was Hilaire Hiler, who had 
returned to take a job with the WPA 
after years of self-imposed exile in the 
American expatriate community of 

between-the-wars Paris. All the Aquatic 
Park artists, Hiler included, were 
exceptions to the tendency among 
California artists to welcome the "return 
to figurative art" as a validation of their 
own rejection of "modernism." 3 In 
contrast to the lack of a plan for its use 
which characterized the construction of 
the building and brought on the WPA 
investigation, it is apparent that the 
design for its decoration adhered 
consistently to consideration of the 
"function of the building . . . , its uses 
and associations, and at no point 
departed] from them." 4 

The highlight of the building decora- 
tion is Hiler's mural of underwater life. 
Curvaceous and brightly colored 
subaqueous forms frolic on the walls 
among the submerged ruins of the lost 
continents of Mu and Atlantis. Henry 
Miller once wrote, "Though the decor 
was distinctly Freudian, it was also gay, 
stimulating, and superlatively healthy." 5 
The walls merge into subtly colored 
marble wainscoting and a terrazzo floor 
that represents a shoal chart of San 
Francisco Bay. The grandeur of this 
open room with its bay view was 
enhanced by its emptiness, an impres- 
sion which is strikingly apparent in 
photographs although it is now altered 
by the collection of nautical exhibits. 

The Aquatic Park bathhouse has 
survived almost fifty years of neglect, 
attention, ridicule, and admiration. In a 
roundabout fashion, it has now 
returned to the use for which it was 
originally intended. It is once again a 
public building with a distinctly nautical 
theme and a grand veranda on San 
Francisco's magnificent bay. □ 



1. John W. Dwinelle, The Colonial His- 
tory of San Francisco . . . (San Fran- 
cisco: Towne and Bacon, 1867), pp. 

2. James P. Delgado, "The Humblest 
Cottage Can in a Short Time Afford 
. . . Pure and Sparkling Water: Early 
Efforts to Solve Gold Rush San Fran- 
cisco's Water Shortage," Pacific Histo- 
rian XXVI:3 (1981), 26-29. 

3. Gerald R. Dow, "Bay Fill in San Fran- 
cisco: A History of Change." M.A. 
Thesis, San Francisco State Univer- 
sity, 1973. p. 66. 

4. Biennial Report of the State Board of 
Harbor Commisioners . . . 1914, p. 20. 

5. Deposition of George Stanton, May 
9, 1863. Manuscript in the Collection 
of the Society of California Pioneers, 
San Francisco. 

6. San Francisco Bulletin, November 
13, 1924. 

7. See David Lavender, Nothing Seemed 
Impossible: William C. Ralston and San 
Francisco (Palo Alto, California: The 
American West Publishing Com- 
pany, 1974); San Francisco Daily Alta 
California (eds.), Memorial of William 
C. Ralston (San Francisco: Alta Press, 
1875), and Harper's Weekly, September 
25, 1875, XIX (1978), 776. 

8. Quoted in San Francisco Chronicle, 
May 1, 1950. 

9. Anna Coxe Toogood, A Civil History 
of the Golden Gate National Recreation 
Area . . . (Denver, Colorado: Na- 
tional Park Service, 1979), Volume 
II, pp. 123-124. Hereafter cited as 

10. Frederick Law Olmstead et al. Pre- 

liminary Report In Regard to a Plan of 
Public Pleasure Grounds for the City of 
San Francisco. (New York: Olmstead, 
Vaux, and Company, 1866), p. 22. 

11. Judd Kahn, Imperial San Francisco: 
Politics and Planning in an American 
City, 1897-1906. (Lincoln: University 
of Nebraska Press, 1979), pp. 1-3 
passim, and Daniel H. Burnham, Re- 
port on a Plan for San Francisco . . . 
(San Francisco: Sunset Press, 1905), 
p. 146 

12. Journal of Proceedings, Board of Su- 
pervisors, City and County of San 
Francisco, 1909, pp. 355 and 733. 
Hereafter cited as Journal of Proceed- 

13. Toogood, p. 123. 

14. Journal of Proceedings, 1914, pp. 286- 

15. Ibid. 

16. Journal of Proceedings, 1916, p. 475. 

17. Journal of Proceedings, 1917, p. 17. 

18. Annual Report of the Bureau of En- 
gineering . . . San Francisco, 1920. 
pp. 33-36. 

19. Toogood, p. 129. 

20. Annual Report of the Bureau of En- 
gineering. . . San Francisco, 1921- 

21. Journal of Proceedings, 1927, p. 1437. 

22. Aquatic Park election materials. 
Manuscripts in the Collection of the 
Society of California Pioneers, San 

23. Journal of Proceedings, 1928, p. 1723. 

24. Letter of William A. Mooser, Jr. to 
L.M. Canady, June 2, 1939, Project 
Files for Aquatic Park, Project #65-3- 
2014, National Archives Records 
Group 69, Reel 13-447. 

25. Ibid. 

26. Fact Sheet, "A Palace for the Public" 
(1939) Manuscript in the Collection 
of the J. Porter Shaw Library of the 
National Maritime Museum, San 
Francisco, p.l. 

27. Memorandum of J.J. Mieldazis to 
H.E. Smith, October 23, 1939, Re- 
port of Investigation, Aquatic Park, 
National Archives Records Group 
69, Box 902, File 651.109, p. 2. 

28. Report of Joseph Fallon, WPA Divi- 
sion of Investigation, November 14, 
1939. NARG 69, Box 902. p. 20. 

29. Ibid. 

30. General Management Plan: Golden Gate 
National Recreation Area. (San Fran- 
cisco: National Park Service.) 


1. Donald J. Bush, The Streamlined Dec- 
ade, (New York, George Braziller, 

2. WPA Investigation of Gordon Lease 
at Aquatic Park, p. 17, National Ar- 
chives, RG 69, WPA, Box 902, Cali- 
fornia File 651.109, Aquatic Park, San 

3. Steven M. Gelber, "Working to Pros- 
perity: California's New Deal Mu- 
rals," California History, Vol. LVII, 
No. 2, Summer 1979, p. 103. 

4. Hilaire Hilar, notebook "Aquatic 
Park Building Decoration," n.d., in 
the collection of the J. Porter Shaw 
Library, National Maritime Mu- 
seum, San Francisco. 

5. Henry Miller, The Air Conditioned 
Nightmare, New York, New Direc- 
tions, n.d., p. 280. 


is a statewide, non-profit educational institution designated by 
the Legislature as the state historical society. With regional 
centers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Marino, the 
Society encourages the collection, preservation, and 
interpretation of materials and information concerning the 
history of California. California History, a quarterly journal 
published by CHS since 1922, features articles focusing on the 
heritage of California and the West from pre-Columbian to 
modern times. Information can be obtained from the California 
Historical Society, 2090 Jackson Street, San Francisco, CA 
94109, (415) 567-1848 or 6300 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, 
CA 90048, (213) 651-5655. 

recounts the saga of the people and ships that helped shape 
the development of the Pacific Coast. In addition to Aquatic 
and Victorian parks, it includes the museum itself, a maritime 
library, and seven historic vessles along the San Francisco 
waterfront. All of these areas are managed by the National 
Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation 

This publication was funded by the NATIONAL MARITIME 
MUSEUM ASSOCIATION, a non-profit, tax-exempt 
organization dedicated to the preservation of maritime history. 
Membership information is available from the National 
Maritime Association, 680 Beach Street, Suite 330, 
San Francisco, CA 94109. 

cover.- San Francisco's Aquatic Park photographed by Minor White on 

February 20, 1950. 

This print, which was made from White's original negative, has been cropped. 


back cover: Black Point Cove ca. 1910.